“Mrs. Paige,” she said, “we couldn’t imagine what had become of you—” and glancing inquiringly at Berkley, started, and uttered a curious little cry:
“Yes,” he said, smiling through his own astonishment.
“Oh!” she cried with a happy catch in her voice, and held out both hands to him; and he laid aside his lance and took them, laughing down into the velvet eyes. And he saw the gray garb of Sainte Ursula that she wore, saw the scarlet heart on her breast, and laughed again—a kindly, generous, warm-hearted laugh; but there was a little harmless malice glimmering in his eyes.
“Wonderful—wonderful, Miss Lynden”—he had never before called her Miss Lynden—“I am humbly overcome in the presence of Holy Sainte Ursula embodied in you. How on earth did old Benton ever permit you to escape? He wrote me most enthusiastically about you before I—ahem—left town.”
“Why didn’t you let me know where you were going?” asked Letty with a reproachful simplicity that concentrated Ailsa’s amazed attention on her, for she had been looking scornfully at Berkley.
“Why—you are very kind, Miss Lynden, but I, myself, didn’t know where I was going.”
“I—I wanted to write you,” began Letty; and suddenly remembered Ailsa’s presence and turned, shyly:
“Mrs. Paige,” she said, “this private soldier is Mr. Berkley—a gentleman. May I be permitted to present him to you?”
And there, while the tragic and comic masks grinned side by side, and the sky and earth seemed unsteadily grinning above and under her feet, Ailsa Paige suffered the mockery of the presentation; felt the terrible irony of it piercing her; felt body and senses swaying there in the candle-light; heard Letty’s happy voice and Berkley’s undisturbed replies; found courage to speak, to take her leave; made her way back through a dreadful thickening darkness to her room, to her bed, and lay there silent, because she could not weep.
In February the birds sang between flurries of snow; but the end of the month was warm and lovely, and robins, bluebirds, and cardinals burst into a torrent of song. The maples’ dainty fire illumined every swamp; the green thorn turned greener; and the live-oaks sprouted new leaves amid their olive-tinted winter foliage, ever green.
Magnolia and laurel grew richer and glossier; azaleas were budding; dog-wood twigs swelled; and somewhere, in some sheltered hollow, a spray of jasmine must have been in bloom, because the faint and exquisite scent haunted all the woodlands.
On the 17th the entire army was paraded by regiments to cheer for the fall of Fort Donnelson.
About mid-February the Allotment Commission began its splendid work in camp; and it seemed to Ailsa that the mental relief it brought to her patients was better than any other medicine—that is, better for the Union patients; for now there were, also, in the wards, a number of Confederate wounded, taken at various times during the skirmishing around Fairfax—quiet, silent, dignified Virginians, and a few fiery Louisianians, who at first, not knowing what to expect, scarcely responded to the brusque kindness of the hospital attendants.